At London’s MCM Expo I was able to interview artist Steve Penfold, an industry veteran who has worked with Beyond the Bunker and Lucasarts.
With any industry that is going through a period of growth there are newbies and veterans. When it comics to the British Comic Book Industry, Steve Penfold one of the most experienced veterans you can find. I had a list of people I wanted to interview when I started devising this feature and Steve was at the top of it. As an artist, Steve has worked with companies such as Lucasarts and Cbeebies, and as a member of the comic the book industry Steve has worked on a tonne of great projects including Caelum Priory, Zookeeper and The Reverend: Wrath of God which all saw success. Currently, Steve is working with Beyond The Bunker to produce Moon, which has been met with a high level of critical acclaim. Going into my interview with Steve I wanted to really pick his brain on why the British Comic Book Industry is in such a growth period.
PL: Do you think the British Comic Book Industry is growing?
SP: Yes. I mean, without a shadow of a doubt. It’s not what it was, by any stretch of the imagination. Back in the nineties of course there was Marvel UK, which arguably was just an American division that appeared to be a British company, and there was 2,000AD at its height. But, yes in real terms, in terms of titles, creativity and scale. The industry is back, even if it’s not quite as commercially back. It’s certainly in a phase of rapid expansion.
PL: Why do you think it’s growing again after the chaos of the late nineties and early two-thousands?
SP: I think it’s down to time. One of the things that affected it the most was that retailers changed the way that they sold comics. For instances nowadays, WHSmiths and places like that hire out space on their shelves. Now for a smaller comic, you can’t afford to put it out there before you even get started on the off chance that your books will sell. So without that guaranteed sale and return on major retail, small comics simply couldn’t survive. 2,000 AD struggled, so it’s that which effectively killed the relationship between retailers and smaller presses back in the nineties. But you can’t stop an industry like this and it was only so long until it was going to come kicking back, I mean British comics have always been famous anyway. The Dandy, The Beano, The Buster are all so iconic to Britain, they just had to find their feet again. Another problem we had to overcome was the exodus of British talent to America, once Marvel UK went down they moved a lot of their talent across the pond. DC followed suit and you saw some of the best writers of our generation leave the British industry. But once people got sick of all that they started doing their own thing and here we are today. It makes perfect sense, Marvel and DC are not as attractive to artists and writers as they used to be and so we are beginning to see more of a home grown industry and talent.
PL: I’ve noticed a lot less super hero stories cropping up in the British, do you think more alternative stories are a definitive aspect of the industry.
SP: Well superheroes weren’t always part of the industry. If anything moving away from the super heroes is a return to form. Actually, what’s left now with super heroes? We’ve seen the alternative super hero stories where we see the ‘real’ life of a super hero and now even the most abstract ideas have become mainstream. For a medium like comics, because of its nature and the specificity of its audience, it thrives from being at the edge of culture. If super heroes are mainstream, new comics are not going to be about super heroes, it’s as simple as that. We have to look for something else and I think that has created a whole new wave of creativity because now no one can do the obvious. We can’t go back to the old styles, like westerns, Sci-fi is making a bit of kick back but now Sci-fi is becoming mainstream as well. So comics have found themselves in this weird situation where all the geeky things they have covered have become mainstream so for them to be against the grain, as it were, they have to be cool.
PL: What would you say to people who are looking to come into the world of comics as creators?
SP: Do it for the love until you reach a point where you are making money at it. Be prepared to work very hard for little or no gain for a long time. Be ready for it to feel like you are never going to get anywhere, but then be ready for the moment, if you stick at it, that it does. Don’t assume anything, keep working hard and be patient. Make sure you don’t lose sight of what you are doing and why you are doing it.
PL: How important do you think an event like MCM Expo or Thought Bubble is to a creator like yourself?
SP: The industry would not exist without them. In fact I would go as far as to say, the reason that me as a creator, and probably most of the guys at such events, are able to continue doing what we are doing if because of the existence of these events. They have just taken on a life of their own. MCM in particular is that rare thing that is both a commercial enterprise and a creative one that remembers what it’s about. The comic village has grown and the table price has managed to stay cheap enough that new talent can come along and thrive. The one thing you hear about all MCM’s is that, as a creator, you will always make your table price back. Other events have really forgotten that, they put their prices up too high, and that simple requirement has gone. As a result, it’s not as attractive to a lot of the new guys. That being said, MCM have very specific rules, for instance no stall is allowed to sell fan art. Which basically means that you cannot do a direct drawing of a pre-existing license. You can do a joke or something involving your own property interacting with an existing character but you cannot do an existing character. They want to see original ideas and original work.
PL: Do you think there is a good community spirt between the artists, writers and the public?
SP: Yeah. You get a sense of how important it can be to some fans, at the same time you also are reminded about how you are just one of many, so it can be humbling. You’re not the king of the world, you’re not Stephan King or JJ Abrahams, when you get down to it you’re selling a book. It’s great if it makes people happy and you live for the smile on their face, but the bottom line is you aren’t changing the world. It stops you looking at sales figures and instead start looking at how people actually feel about your work.
PL: Just before we finish, is there any of your recent work that you would like to tell our readers about?
SP: Of course! Ours is the story of the moon. Our moon. A lot of people don’t seem to know about this, but moon has been dropping out of the sky now for the last two thousand years in the early hours of the morning. Most recently, he has been putting on a suit, taking out a gun and fighting crime on behalf of us all, mainly the British public. He’s teamed up with a homicidal traffic warden by the name of Shades Rodriguez, he has no face with which to emote and he has no mouth with which to speak. If you put a coke float in front of him he will drink it, but no one is entirely sure how. He’s a surprisingly good shot and he’s doomed to plummet out of the sky for the rest of time.
How can you get involved?
If you’re looking to get into the British comic book industry it is worth picking up ‘Moon’ Issue One, Two and Three as it is a good example of the abstract work being done in the industry.
Photography by William Shacklady